ABC had a very strange 2011-12 TV season. On the one hand, “Modern Family” had its biggest ratings yet, the network launched the top-rated new drama of the season in “Once Upon a Time,” had a much-buzzed-about (if more modestly-rated) new success in “Revenge,” and had four other rookies (“Suburgatory,” “Scandal,” “Last Man Standing” and “Don’t Trust the (Beaver) in Apt. 23”) do well enough to merit renewal for another season.
On the other hand, those successes – plus the continuation of other hits like “Grey’s Anatomy” (still the most-watched drama on TV in the 18-49 demographic) and “Dancing with the Stars” – likely won’t be enough to keep the network out of fourth place in the season’s demo ratings. Even if NBC will only squeak ahead of ABC because it aired the Super Bowl, that’s still not a good overall result considering all the successes.
But on an upfront press conference call, ABC entertainment president Paul Lee acknowledged that the network needed a lot of work when he took over a couple of years ago.
“We had a good start” this year, he said, “but we have to keep going.”
So the schedule Lee unveiled will do its best to leverage existing hits to build new ones – sending the modestly-rated “Happy Endings” and “Don’t Trust the (Basketball)” to Tuesdays so that “Modern Family” can lead into the new sitcom “The Neighbors,” and moving “Revenge” to the old “Desperate Housewives” Sunday timeslot to get a “Once Upon a Time” lead-in – while still launching 10 new series at different points in the season.
Analysis of the schedule, night-by-night:
SUNDAY: Again, the plan is to use “Once Upon a Time” at 8 to help turn “Revenge” at 9 from media hit into actual hit, though we’ll have to see if the family-friendly “Once” is actually a great lead-in for the more adult “Revenge.” The unkillable “America’s Funniest Home Videos” is at 7, and new drama “666 Park Avenue” – a supernatural soap opera about a building run by a Devil-ish figure, starring Terry O’Quinn, Vanessa Williams and Rachael Taylor – at 10, attempting to combine aspects of the two shows leading into it.
MONDAY: “Dancing with the Stars” slipped in the ratings this season, and will try to prevent further erosion with an all-star edition in the fall. (Lee said he couldn’t name any casting names yet.) “Castle” returns for its fifth season, still at 10, with “The Bachelor” filling in for “Dancing” for a few months starting in January.
TUESDAY: The “Dancing” results show slides up to 8, and “Private Practice” did well enough in a Tuesday at 10 tryout this spring that it’ll stay there in the fall. The big move is at 9 and 9:30, where “Happy Endings” and “Don’t Trust the (Blood Sausage) in Apt. 23” will not only have to survive without “Modern Family” as a lead-in, but as part of a six-sitcom pile-up for the hour when you add in FOX’s “New Girl” and “The Mindy Project” and NBC’s “Go On” and “The New Normal.” Lee talked up the “passionate” audience for both of his sitcoms, but something’s gotta give here, perhaps with NBC swapping its sitcoms with “The Voice” results show, so that “Voice” and “Dancing” don’t go head-to-head on two nights in the fall.
While “Dancing” is in between cycles at mid-season, ABC will plug in two more sitcoms in the 8 o’clock hour: Sarah Chalke in “How to Live with Your Parents (For the Rest of Your Life)” and Kyle Bornheimer, J.K. Simmons and Leah Remini running a family handyman business in “The Family Tools.”
WEDNESDAY: “The Middle” at 8, “Suburgatory” at 8:30 and “Modern Family” (which Lee called “the defining comedy of our times,” as well as the quintessential ABC show) at 9 are all status quo. At 9:30 is “The Neighbors,” a high-concept comedy about a gated New Jersey community where all the residents save one (a new couple played by Jamie Gertz and Lenny Venito) are aliens. The execution – the show was created by “Tangled” and “Crazy, Stupid, Love” screenwriter Dan Fogelman – could turn out to be good, but the description suggests a show from 1983. Lee said that after trying a variety of edgier comedies (including “Cougar Town,” which is moving to TBS next year) in the 9:30 slot, the goal was to put another family comedy on after “Modern Family.”
At 10 is one of two new ABC Nashville-themed series, this one simply titled “Nashville,” pitting Connie Britton’s aging star against Hayden Panettiere’s rising schemer. It’s one of a wave of new shows this season on all the networks created by screenwriters (in this case, “Thelma & Louise” writer Calli Khouri) with minimal TV experience.
THURSDAY: “Grey’s” isn’t what it was, but is still sturdy enough to serve as the night’s tentpole, and a lead-in to fellow Shonda Rhimes drama “Scandal.” But the 8 p.m. timeslot hasn’t been kind to ABC in recent years – both “Charlie’s Angels” and “Missing” died there this season – and now the bad luck position goes to “Last Resort,” a new drama co-created by Shawn Ryan (“The Shield,” “The Unit”) starring Andre Braugher as the commander of a ballistic missile submarine who goes rogue when he rejects orders to fire nukes on a foreign country.
Though the timeslot has been bad news for ABC, and though “Last Resort” seems off-brand for a network that has aggressively focused on female viewers for years, Lee expressed faith in Ryan’s gifts as a showrunner and insisted the show “tested extremely well with women, probably as well if not better than men.”
FRIDAY: The first few months of the season will look familiar: “Shark Tank” at 8, “Primetime: What Would You Do?” at 9 and “20/20” at 10. Starting in November, “Primetime” takes a break, “Shark Tank” slides to 9, and ABC attempts to revive its family-friendly Friday sitcom tradition (if not the actual T.G.I.F. brand name) with “Last Man Standing” at 8 and the new “Malibu Country” (Reba McEntire as the ex-wife of a Nashville star and Lily Tomlin as her mother) at 8:30. Lee said putting family comedies on Friday was a goal of his since he took the job, and didn’t seem concerned by the idea that cable sibling like Disney Channel and ABC Family tend to split up much of the family audience.
SATURDAY: College football in the fall, repeats and movies in the spring.
Mid-season shows with premiere dates TBA include the return of “Body of Proof” and “Wife Swap,” plus new series “Mistresses,” “Red Widow” and “Zero Hour.”
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com